Ten years after his first book, Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez again threatens to redefine the way we think about ethnicity, education, and religion in present-day America. And he does so in disarmingly baroque prose--poetical, nuanced, and, at times, heroic. Rodriguez's essays are informed by his ``Latin skepticism'' and his ``firm belief in Original Sin and the limits of possibility.'' Hardly the typical posture for a cosmopolitan Californian who lives in sybaritic San Francisco in one of its Victorian ``doll houses for libertines.'' But then again, there's nothing typical about Rodriguez, whether he's meditating on the AIDS epidemic; musing on the legend of the notorious bandit Joaquin Murrieta; or mucking about the reconstructed missions in southern California. Rodriguez travels to Mexico, where, he says, the Indian suffers from ``Gitchigooism''--the habit of placing him outside history, and of treating him as a ``mascot of the international ecology movement.'' Like the belligerent Chicano, the Mexican denies the power of miscegenation and assimilation. Rodriguez, on the other hand, understands the future of the West--of America itself--as a struggle between two traditions: the comedy of California, with its Protestant faith in individualism, played against the tragedy of Mexico, with its communal legacy of Catholicism. While his immigrant father clings to the sadness of the past, Rodriguez embraces contradiction. He seeks out order in the exuberant Protestant chaos; he embodies the conflict of theologies in his often ambivalent behavior. At the slightest hint of ideology, Rodriguez retreats into poetry and irony. His aloofness is worthy of Naipaul; his vision of America echoes Ralph Ellison; and his gimlet eye reminds us of Joan Didion--though he's the Catholic, middle-class postscript to her Protestant anomie. Rodriguez's moral and aesthetic imagination guarantees that this beautiful book will linger long after the polemics in the culture wars subside. Everywhere here, one is in the presence of a superior sensibility, all the more remarkable for its modest beginnings.